While easing away from the Fulcher’s Landing ramp in Sneads Ferry, Allen Jernigan told his fishing party that rain and windy conditions would likely affect the clarity of the water in the places he wanted to search for flounder.
After all, flounder are hard enough to see after dark, and trying to peer down through a rippled water surface and locate them on a bottom that’s been stirred up makes it even tougher.
Whoa, what kind of flounder fishing is this?
It’s not flounder fishing, but flounder gigging — easing through the shallows on foot or in a boat, using portable lights to illuminate the bottom, looking for flounder to stab with a long stick, the end of which looks like Neptune’s trident.
Flounder gigging has been a popular sport along the North Carolina coast for years, and Jernigan is one of only a few fishing guides who takes parties on gigging trips after dark. Done correctly, there’s no substitute for putting the makings of a flounder sandwich in the cooler.
Jernigan planned to take his party toward Topsail to check an area where he’d been seeing some larger flounder, but he was afraid it was exposed to the wind and would be stirred up, making flounder difficult to see.
After a few minutes, Jernigan slowed his boat and turned into the gap between two spoil islands along the Intracoastal Waterway, then stepped forward to pivot the flounder lights over the side and into the water,
"The wind has some sand stirred up in the water," Jernigan said. "Let’s try it a while. If it doesn’t get any worse and we can see the bottom on both sides, we should be able to gig here. There have been some bigger flounder here, and I want to give it a try unless it gets so dirty we can’t see."
After about 20 unsuccessful minutes, Jernigan, who operates Breadman Ventures, picked up and moved to look for an area out of the wind. He went to a bay off the ICW where it passes through Camp Lejeune. The noises that had been faint earlier were now much louder with the Marines on maneuvers just a few miles away. The thump of whirling blades was quite audible as three Ospreys helicopters practiced touch-and-go landings in an area behind a stand of trees.
"It looks like we’ll have some entertainment here, maybe even some fireworks," Jernigan said, flipping the lights on again and pointing. "Hey, come here; we almost sat down on this one."
Jernigan explained to Donna Mooneyham that the way to gig the flounder was to ease the gig point into the water and position it over the flounder’s head. Once certain of her aim, she was to sharply push the gig down into the flounder and hold it there.
Mooneyham’s aim was true, and the gig pulsed several times while she held the flounder pinned to the bottom. When the struggling stopped, she lifted the flounder in, and Jernigan showed her how to pin it in the corner of the livewell and pull it out without having to handle it and get slime on her hands.
"Gigs are the most selective gear you can use for fishing for flounder," Jernigan said. "A gig can’t do anything by itself. Even if it falls overboard, it will just lie there until it’s found or covered with sand. If someone doesn’t hold, aim and push a gig forward, it can’t stick a fish. Any issue with gigging isn’t with the gig, but with the person using it.
Giggers are regulated by the same size and creel limits as rod-and-reel fishermen, and Jernigan explained that you can’t unhook and release an undersized flounder that’s been gigged. The key is being careful only to give fish that are obviously of legal size.
"I don’t allow gigging any fish whose size might be questionable," Jernigan said. "If you don’t gig it, it will never need to be released for being undersize. I would rather pass up a barely legal flounder rather than take a chance on gigging one that is undersized."
Jernigan said flounder laying on the bottom at night aren’t usually very spooky, and it is almost possible to stop and measure them as long as you don’t touch them. About a hundred yards down the bank, he found a flounder of marginal size and prove it; the flounder didn’t move until he touched it — even though he moved his gig through the water.
Farther down the bank there were a couple of short fish, another keeper and some other fish, including a red drum and a black drum. Jernigan explained that most fish could be gigged, provided they were of legal size and within the creel limit, except for red drum.
Jernigan’s next move was to the New River.
"There are enough bays and creeks there I can find a good, protected spot with clear water," he said. "The weather forecast had some thunderstorms for later tonight and I’d like to be through before they start."
After riding a few minutes, Jernigan pulled in near a bank and shut off the motor. When he put in the flounder lights, it looked like an aquarium. The difference in clarity and range of sight was quite impressive.
Only a few yards down the bank, Jernigan pointed out a couple of depressions in the bottom where flounder had been recently, one so fresh the outline of the fins was still visible.
About a minute later, Jernigan called Mooneyham to the bow and pointed. He used his gig to position the boat, and she took aim on the unsuspecting flatfish. It was a perfect shot, and another flounder was added to the collection in the live well. Another 50 or so yards and the see, stick and add a flounder to the cooler scenario was repeated.
Down one stretch of bank, almost all of the flounder were of marginal size, and Jernigan took long looks at a couple but decided to pass. Then the water eased up on a sand bar, and more keepers were around the edge.
Jernigan had warned we might see or spook an alligator, but it was well into the trip before it happened, and his warning had all but been forgotten. Thankfully, the splash of the gator lunging off the bank wasn’t immediately followed by the splash of a surprised fisherman falling in.
Flounder gigging is a good way to fill the freezer with the prime ingredients for many good meals, but it is also an adventure. The potential combination of nature viewing and military fireworks makes a night of flounder gigging at Sneads Ferry far more than just a fishing trip, and having grown up in these waters and being on them most days or nights gives Jernigan the experience to be a top guide for all of it.
HOW TO GET THERE — To reach Sneads Ferry, connect to US 17 somewhere between Wilmington and Jacksonville and follow it to NC 210 or NC 172, which connects with Sneads Ferry. The most popular public boat-access in the area is at Fulcher’s Landing on SR 1557 off NCC 172. The ramp has 35 spaces for vehicles with trailers and 10 spaces for single vehicles. Another public ramp is under the NC 210 bridge on the Topsail Beach side of the ICW. For detailed directions, visit www.ncwildlife.org/Boating/WheretoBoat.aspx.
WHEN TO GO — Flounder can be gigged year-round in the bays and creeks off the New River and the ICW around Sneads Ferry, but most fishermen prefer the period between July and October when the combination of good numbers and big flounder exists.
EQUIPMENT PREFERENCES — Just like rod-and-reel fishermen, flounder giggers have gear preferences. A good start is a 9-foot aluminum gig pole with a 3-prong stainless steel gig. Sea Striker makes both.
REGULATIONS — Giggers are held to the same creel and size limits as hook-and-line fishermen: six per person, with a 15-inch size minimum. Flounder tend to shrink some when put on ice, so make sure any flounder gigged is longer than the minimum size.
INFO/CHARTERS — Capt. Allen Jernigan, Breadman Ventures Charters, 910-467-1482 or http://www.breadmanventures.com/; New River Marina, 910-327-2106. East Coast Sports, http://www.eastcoastsports.com/, 910-328-1887. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — The Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites, Sneads Ferry, (888-465-4329); The Seaward Inn, Sneads Ferry, 910-347-0469 or http://www.seawardinnnc.com/; Topsail Shores Inn, 910-685-0969 and http://www.topsailshoresinn.com/; Onslow County Tourism Office, http://www.onslowcountytourism.com/.
MAPS — Capt. Segull’s Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855 or http://www.captainsegullcharts.com/; Sealake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185 or http://www.thegoodspots.com/; GMCO’s Chartbook of North Carolina, 888-420-6277 or http://www.gmcomaps.com/.